The students were told all four memories were real and had been supplied by their family member. After receiving the packet, the students identified whether they remembered each event and how confident they were that it had happened to them. In follow-up interviews the researchers asked them to recall details from the events they remembered.
Seven of the 24 students "remembered" the false event in their packets. Several recalled and added their own details to the memory.
"It was pretty exciting to watch these normal, healthy individuals pick up on the suggestions in our interviews, and pick up the false information that we fed them," Loftus says.
Loftus continued her experiments, convincing study participants they had broken a window with their hand, witnessed a drug bust, choked on an object before the age of 3 and had experienced other traumatic events. And she continued to testify in cases involving repressed memories.
"I don't think there's any credible, scientific support for this notion of massive repression," Loftus says. "It's been my position that, you know, we may one day find (the evidence), but until we do, we shouldn't be locking people up."
Loftus soon began to wonder if she could influence other behaviors. What if she could convince people they had a negative experience with unhealthy food as a child? Would they eat less of it as an adult?
Using her finely tuned "recipe" for memory implantation, she guided study participants to believe they had gotten sick eating strawberry ice cream as children.
A week later, researchers asked about the ice cream incident. Many participants had developed a detailed memory -- what Loftus calls a "rich false memory" -- about when they had gotten sick. Subsequent studies showed this memory affected the participant's actual eating behavior.
It seemed obvious to Loftus that there was potential here to fight obesity. Therapists couldn't lie to their patients, but parents could convince kids that they didn't like ice cream or other fattening foods. Critics raged that she was advocating lying to children.
"Which would you rather have?" Loftus replied simply. "A kid with obesity, heart problems, shortened lifespan, diabetes -- or maybe a little bit of false memory?"
Schacter, who also studies memory, objects to the term "playing around" with someone's mind. He, Loftus and others like them are simply trying to understand what's going on in our memories, he says. "We're assessing the limits of memory, the accuracy of memory. ... Almost by definition we think we're remembering accurately, even though we're not."
Already this year Loftus has co-authored studies on false memories related to alcohol, politics and stressful events. In one, called "Queasy Does It," Loftus' team took the same methods they used to persuade people to eat less ice cream and applied them to vodka or rum. Loftus says this research could potentially be used to help addicts in the future.
Her lab at the University of California Irvine is also working to identify the individual differences that make people more or less susceptible to memory alteration.
Sometime Loftus worries about crossing into unethical territory -- like when she created false memories in military personnel who were training to survive as prisoners of war. When the study published, she feared "we were going to basically be giving (our enemies) a recipe for how to do bad things to other people and then contaminate their memory."
But as a scientist, she says sharing how to implant memories -- so we can potentially learn how to protect against it -- is better than burying the information.
Walking the line
In 2006, Loftus attended a talk by legal scholar Adam Kolber on the legal and ethical implications of memory-dampening drugs. According to Kolber, neuroscientists had made significant strides in creating medications victims could take after a traumatic event to dampen the intensity of their memories. Kolber contended that while those drugs could hamper legal proceedings, "We have a deeply personal interest in controlling our own minds that entitles us to a certain freedom of memory."
Loftus was fascinated. "I thought to myself, 'I would want (the drugs),'" she says. Her colleague disagreed. So like any good experimental psychologist, Loftus started a study.
She asked people if they were the victim of a vicious crime, would they want to take the drug? Eighty percent said no. Well, maybe they want to be able to testify against the perpetrator, Loftus thought. So she ran it again -- this time asking if they would take the drug after seeing their military buddy blown up by an IED overseas. Eighty percent refused.
"I thought, maybe I need to explain to them just how bad post-traumatic stress disorder is," she remembers. So she did. "And they still don't want the drug."
The results taught Loftus just how much people cherish their memories.
"Even if it's going to be a harmful memory, they don't want to let it go," she says. "(This is) why sometimes I get such resistance to the work I do. Because it's telling people that your mind might be full of much more fiction than you realize. And people don't like that."
But you don't need a psychological researcher to distort your memory in a lab, Loftus says. People distort their own memories all the time -- they remember getting better grades than they did, voting in more elections than they did, having kids that walked or talked earlier than they actually did. Loftus calls this "prestige-enhancing memories."
We all want to remember ourselves as just a little bit better than we really are, Loftus says, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Scientists call it "depressive realism," and say depressed people may just remember things more accurately than the rest of us.